First Contact Nations Call for Return of Ancestral Land

If freedom is tied to land, then land is what they want.  The Federation of Aboriginal Nations of America (FANA), a confederation of many tribes and nations, have filed 3 separate Alien Tort Statutes alleging environmental racism under Jus Cogens in the District Court of the United States in Washington, D.C.. FANA, whose members include tribes and nations from New England and other sections of the eastern seaboard, emerged in 2011 to “seek new hope and self-determination for its people.”  They charge Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania with environmental racism, genocide, and slavery against the tribal and individual rights of their members.  Among their demands is a call to return land that once belonged to all of the American Aborigine in the Southern New England area.

Many of the tribes and nations that make up FANA are not federally recognized nor do they intend to apply for federal recognition.  These tribes and nations assert that they never gave up sovereignty, never sold their land, and demand the U.S. government make amends.  The relationship between land and identity is most salient to FANA who make it clear that their freedom is inextricably bound to the repatriation of their land.  Fracking, superfunding, and overdevelopment have emotionally devastated their people and their land and now they want it back. 

Litigation efforts to repatriate land to unrecognized tribes have historically failed because the U.S. does not acknowledge their existence.  The U.S. officially recognizes over 500 Native tribal communities.  The federal recognition process is overseen by the  Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a federal agency whose mission is, “to fulfill its trust responsibilities and promote self-determination on behalf of federally recognized tribal governments, American Indians, and Alaska Natives.” The reality is, sovereign tribes recognized by the BIA have limited tribal self-rule in the U.S.. Tribal governments are subject to the power of the federal government which limits their ability to make their own laws and be ruled by them.  

Members of FANA understand that the Bureau of Indian Affairs does not and has never intended to protect Native people or way of life.  Part of their work provides an outlet for recognized tribes to come out of the trust of BIA.  In a strategic move, FANA member tribes created tribal trusts for each of its member tribes listing all of their members and land claims.  They each positioned the principal chief as the trustee.  This empowers them to operate as a legal entity that can sue the United States government; a right they otherwise do not have.  They refute the exploitation of their legacy and insist that the only way to accomplish that is through land repatriation and to operate without incursions into their legal and business affairs by the States.

FANA leaders say that land is not simply a property value or a piece of real estate for them but rather a step toward self-sufficiency and the unification and education of First Nation people.  Self-sufficiency for FANA members looks like many things. At its core, it is autonomous but cooperative.  It is diverse and varies from tribe to tribe. In Delaware, tribal leaders want to open up the land for reverse migration.  Others want to restore land and work with communities to integrate distinct Native life back into their community.  Some, like Nehantick-Nahaganset Nation, want control of state and federal park land to be used as a reserve for animals, to educate people on culture, and to work toward environmental remediation.  Self-sufficiency is empowering tribes and nations to reconstruct the value and meaning of Native sovereignty on their own terms.

It is not foolish to believe that acquisition to land is essential to the liberation of Native people.  The authors of the Declaration of Independence understood that if America does not have sovereignty, it does not have independence.  FANA understands this too and they know that preserving and protecting Native people and indigenous land can only happen through a free and independent process led by truly sovereign tribes and nations. Neesu Wushuwunoag, Director General of FANA and Sunnadin Sachem of the Nehantick-Nahaganset Nation, summed it up like this: “Liberation for Native people will come when we can operate in our world, with our system, and without interference from theirs.”


*To learn more about FANA contact Laura Zucker,

*The following individuals were interviewed for this piece:  Sagamore William Winds of Thunder of the Pokanoket Nation, Principal Chief Ronald Yonguska Holloway of the Sand Hill Band of Lenape and Cherokee Indians, Neesu Wushuwunoag, Director General of FANA and Sunnadin Sachem of the Nehantick-Nahaganset Nation, and Principal Chief Wayne Everett.

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